Writing the Virgin's Body: Breton and Eluard's Immaculée Conception

by Katharine Conley
Writing the Virgin's Body: Breton and Eluard's Immaculée Conception
Katharine Conley
The French Review
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Writing the Virgin's Body: Breton and
Eluard's lmmaculee Conception
by Katharine Conley
FOR ANDRE BRETON, Francis Picabia's work merited acclaim as both modern
and surreal because, for Breton, Picabia: "demeure le maitre de la surprise.
. . . La surprise commande, en effet, toute la notion du 'moderne' au seul
sens acceptable de prehension, de happement du futur dans le present"
("Surrealisme" 221). "Le maitre de la surprise"-the "master of surprise"is
an interestingly problematic designation, and no figure better embodies
this surrealist paradox than Woman, because of the way the Surrealists
continuously tried to "master" her by writing about her as an object of
desire at once fearsome and alluring.
Surprise is characteristic of what one may call the "Automatic Woman"
in Surrealism, because Woman as muse for automatic writing presides over
a practice whose results are always surprising. Furthermore, as an image
Woman can surprise in Surrealism because of the way she generates electric
shocks. For example, in L'Amour fou Breton pays his highest compliment
to Jacqueline Lamba, his second wife, when he writes of her: "cette
femme etait scandaleusement belle" ("Amour" 63). She surprises, shocks, or
scandalizes in the manner of the mechanical short-circuit process so essential
to surrealist art.
As a muse, "Automatic Woman" stretches as the ideal conductor between
the Surrealist male poet and his art, because she helps generate
creative sparks in him. Woman is a "conductrice d'electricite mentale"
(Arcane 17 11). At the same time she figures as a metaphor for the art he
produces: she connects the poet with his object of art and isthe object of his
art-in other words, via the spark generated by her beauty, or her aura,
she connects with the male poet in the manner of the two "realites
eloignees" from the definition of the surrealist image, first established by
Reverdy: "L'image est une creation pure de l'esprit. Elle ne peut naitre d'une
comparaison mais du rapprochement de deux realites plus ou moins
eloignees" (Nord-Sud 13, mars 1918). It is Woman, after all, who elicits and
embodies Breton's manifesto-statement about surrealist beauty: lila beaute
sera CONVULSIVE ou ne sera pas" ("CEuvres" 753).
Images of Woman can also surprise the viewer through the shock of
laughter. To compare a woman to a machine, for example, is shocking,
which is precisely the effect sought by Picabia in his "La Fille nee sans mere"
(1913), -a painting of a machine identified as a human being. In another
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example, Man Ray's painting on glass, "Llmpossible, or L'lmpossibilite" (or
"Dancer/Danger") (1920), the various gears representing anticipated motion
are labeled "Dancer." However, a strategic smear across the bottom of
the "C" causes the viewer to do a double-take and re-read the name as
"Danger." This image is an apt illustration of the notion of "Automatic
Woman" because it surprises and amuses by virtue of the associations the
visual pun arouses, linking the figure of the dancer-Woman-as-anemblem-
of-Beauty to the figure of danger-Woman-as-Medusa. The substitution
of a machine for a female dancer-a traditional emblem of
beauty-also heightens the impression of Woman as Other for the male
artist, and it emphasizes Woman's potential for glamor because of the way
the feminine name shrouds the rather ordinary-seeming machine in
Of all Breton's muses, his "automatic" women, the Virgin Mary as the
Immaculate Conception stands apart as the most appropriately surreal. The
Virgin was a classic anti-symbol for the Surrealist group. The Surrealists
were actively disdainful of organized religion and disrespectful of its symbolic
representatives: a good pre-Surrealist example may be seen in Francis
Picabia's "Sainte Vierge"-an inkblot representation of the Virgin Mary,
from Picabia's Journal, 391 (March 1920); the viewer is first surprised by
the assignation of such a serious name to an image that can be so casually
produced, then shocked that such playfulness should be so surprising.
Humor is again the ultimate effect of the shock value of Max Ernst's "La
Vierge corrigeant l'enfant Jesus devant trois temoins: Andre Breton, Paul
Eluard et Max Ernst" (1926). While we mayor may not feel shocked by the
representation of the Virgin spanking the infant Jesus, or, perhaps more
pointedly, by the fact that in the process the child's halo has fallen to the
ground, we certainly do recognize how unusual it is to see the Virgin and
the child Jesus portrayed in such a way, and the effectiveness of the joke is
enhanced by our surprise.
Irreverent or not, however, both "The Virgin Spanking the Infant Jesus"
and the inclusion of a chapter on the "Immaculate Conception" in Max
Ernst's collage-novel, La Femme 100 fetes (1928), betray an attraction to the
image and symbolism of the Virgin Mary on the part of the Surrealists. In
many ways this is not surprising, because she is an easy mark, having been
so seriously and formally portrayed by the Church for centuries. But the
Virgin as the Immaculate Conception is also more directly relevant to
Surrealism because she herself has subversive value as a female deityfigure
within the patriarchal Church. That she functions as an appropriate
anti-symbol for the Surrealists is obvious. It is less apparent but equally
arguable that she also works as a potentially positive, straightforward symbol
within Surrealism.
As the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin is shown alone, and consequently
most subversively resembles the more powerful, previous goddesses
whom she replaced-specifically, Isis.! As the medieval miracle
stories show, the Virgin has traditionally been viewed as a disruptive figure
in the patriarchal Church-protecting known sinners who showed unswerving
loyalty to her." She certainly continues to play an unpredictable
role in the very modern sense for which Breton praises Picabia in that she
disrupts time by continuing to appear in body, up into the twentieth
Her apparitions are surrealistically disquieting because she returns in the
same body, according to Church doctrine (1950), since she did not die but
was "translated" into heaven." Her body functions as a medium between
Heaven and Earth and between two kinds of time: eternal and chronological.
Physically, the Virgin Mary lives in two worlds at once, reconciling
apparently irreconcilable states of being and mind. When her body appears
and is seen in France or elsewhere, a bit of infinity slips into the temporal
world, like a surrealist surge of the irrational within daily life. Her words
uncannily remind us of the "phrase qui cognait ala vitre"-the phrase that
knocks at the window of consciousness-which Breton refers to in the first
Manifeste du surrealisme as his initial experience of automatism ("CEuvres"
When she appears we expect her to speak for the patriarchal Father; yet
one day she might refuse to act as an intermediary and shock and surprise
us by speaking for herself. In this sense, the Virgin is a positive symbol for
Surrealism, and not merely an anti-symbol. She is emblematic of the modern-
of the "happement du futur dans Ie present" which Breton admired in
Picabia's work, and she stands as an appropriate metaphor for the automatic
text itself. Like an automatic text, she herself touches both the irrational
and rational, articulating the inexpressible. Her physical being utters
words from out of this world the way a Surrealist enunciates an unconscious
flow of words through the automatic text. Just as she disrupts time, so
does the Surrealist composer of automatic texts: by writing quickly, the
automatic writer seeks to make time stand still momentarily by slipping in
words between the minutes necessitated for thought-word formulation.
L'lmmaculee Conception was written over a two-to-three-week period in
the late summer of 1930 by Andre Breton and Paul Eluard. As with all
automatic writing projects, including Breton and Philippe Soupault's
Champs magneiiques (1919), in this one, Breton and Eluard sought to produce
text without censoring the writing process in any way. The first
section, "L'Homme," traces the human life cycle; in the second, "Les Possessions,"
Breton and Eluard simulate states of mental illness in a series of
"Essais": "Essai de la debilite mentale," "Essai de la manie aigue," etc. This
section is particularly interesting because the writing loses syntactical clarity,
something which did not happen in Les Champs magneiiques. The text
breaks down, not only on the level of grammatical intelligibility, but also on
the level of the signifier. The third section, "Les Mediations," consists of
automatic musings on various notions which function as mediators of
reality: "La Force de l'habitude," "La Surprise," "II n'y a rien d'incomprehensible.
Y'Le Sentiment de la nature," "L'Amour," "L'Idee du devenir."
The fourth and final section comes back to a playful recasting of Christian
notions of truth and time: "Le [ugernent originel."
Unlike the procedure followed by Breton and Soupault with Les Champs
magnhioues, Breton and Eluard determined in advance the overall title,
L'lmmaculee Conception, and the titles of the individual sections, and wrote
automatically from the inspiration of those titles." In effect, then, the Virgin
governs the text in a way that the section titles of Les Champs
magneiiques cannot. Not only is the text named for her, but the frontispiece
to the original edition was illustrated with the familiar photograph of the
statue of her at Lourdes. The Picasso Museum manuscript also shows a
supplementary image of her: another postcard of her as the Immaculate
Conception, as she appeared at Azpeitia in the Basque region of Northern
Spain-a reflection of the influence of Salvador Dali, who was from this
region, on the artistic and personal lives of Breton and Eluard at the time
(Gala had recently left Eluard for Dali: an illustration by Dali adorned the
The first phrase in the text is a direct reference to the Virgin Mary:
"Prenons Ie Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle et montrons-Ie." Breton and Eluard
poke fun at the "Good News" of the Gospels by referring to them in the
name of an ordinary Parisian boulevard, and by opposing this work of
automatic writing to them. They also slyly make fun of the "Good News"
delivered to the Virgin at the Annunciation, while at the same time proposing
to demonstrate the ways in which voices from internalized other
worlds-including hers-can speak out through the medium of the automatic
text and influence the way we perceive "reality."
One of the first indicators that there is an element of seriousness to
Breton and Eluard's play is the fact that the first section, "L'Homme"-the
Word made Man according to the Gospels-represents an indirect reference
to the very "Good News" which they are also mocking. A complete
"human life" cycle is contained within this section's five parts-"La Conception,"
"La Vie intra-uterine," "La Naissance," "La Vie," and "La Mort"which
is further suggestive of the entire Christian cultural construct
within which Breton and Eluard grew up.
The final section's title, "Le [ugement originel," similarly traces the
Christian life cycle by implication: from Man's first entry into the human
world after the "original" sin, to the final "judgment" at the end. By reversing
the references chronologically, making the "judgment" "original" instead
of "final," Breton and Eluard inscribe in this title the qualities
associated with the Christian God, (and with the immortal Virgin), implying
that in the original sin lies the final judgment: in the end is the beginning,
a metaphor for infinity.
Critics such as Marguerite Bonnet and Etienne-Alain Hubert, editors of
the Pleiade edition, have recognized the significance of using the Virgin
Mary in the title. But beyond its title, L'lmmaculie Conception is interwoven
with thematic references to the Virgin: first, to her as a feminine archetype;
second, to her as a disruption to chronological time; third, to her as a
being at once natural-a mother-and unnatural-a mother who conceived,
and was conceived, immaculately, the way a thoroughly "modern"
machine might reproduce; fourth, as a metaphor for the male artist's own
"immaculate" conception of the automatic text; and finally as a metaphor
for the automatic text itself.
The first thematic reference to the Virgin-to Woman as a traditional
object of desire-is deployed throughout the text in various forms. In "La
Vie intra-uterine," for example, Woman as representative of an absolute is
referred to in the guise of statues of Venus. Because these statues are
multiple, they become generic archetypes of the feminine-in the manner
of the myriad statuettes of the Virgin present in churches and available at
pilgrimage sites such as Lourdes. These statues in particular link Venus,
the older goddess of Love and Beauty, to the Virgin, because they are
maternal and play actively the role of muse: "Les gestes interdits des
statues dans Ie moule ont donne ces figures imparfaites et revenantes: les
Venus dont les mains absentes caressent les cheveux des poetes" (45-46).
Woman as a beautiful object of desire is also impossibly idealized beyond
the scope of the real in one of the "Possessions": "Essai de simulation de la
paralysie generale." In terms not unlike those from traditional poems to
Mary, the text reads like a love letter-almost unpunctuated, propelled by
the untrammeled eroticism of images of love and desire-in which the
beloved is described as a limitlessly beautiful creature: "Ma grande adoree
belle comme tout sur la terre et dans les plus belles etoiles de la terre que
j'adore ma grande femme adoree par toutes les puissances des etoiles belle
avec la beaute des milliards de reines qui parent la terre l'adoration que j'ai
pour ta beaute me met a genoux..." (79). This ideal Woman is like a deity
for the poet, an internalized ideal-the way the Virgin Mary is for believers,
and also for many writers raised in the Western poetic tradition.
The idealization of this Woman-as-beautiful-object-of-desire is in keeping
with the way in which the Virgin also represents eternal time in relation
to our sense of chronology-the second thematic reference to her. In
Elmmaculee Conception, the principal contrast between an eternal dimension
and the human life cyle is presented in visual terms of invisibility and
visibility. References to alternate modes of conceiving of time pepper the
entire first section, but the most striking imagistic references occur in the
"Mediations." In "La Surprise," the contrast between the two dimensions is
represented in the form of a relay race: "Les etres possibles interrogent les
etres probables, deja sans peres et sans meres. Us attendent leur tour, ils
font cercle, ils se passent Ie gant de la visibilite. L'homme, au centre, n'est
plus que la chandelle." (113). When we are alive, in other words, the only
difference from when we are not, is our visibility, which in and of itself is
only a matter of perception, of the light shed on life by human sight and
In "Lldee du devenir" this image becomes more explicitly that of a race:
coming into visibility from invisibility is a collective effort in which we are
alone among many on our path through visibility-life:
Que de coureurs et queUe course! C'est si loin qu'il n'y aura personne aattendre
l'arrivee. Les premiers auront mille et mille fois rejoint les demiers, tant apres
tout la piste est petite: or, comme on se garde bien, et pour cause, de compter
les tours ... Dans nos courts rapports avec l'existence le tout est que nous
ayons un peu entretenu le rythme. La mernoire se perd des courbes du trajet.
C'est par une ligne indefiniment droite que la direction est donnee, que le
retour est rendu impossible. Et le coureur se depasse ... nest devenu invisible.
In keeping with the third category of thematic references to her, the
Virgin's characteristic of being both natural and unnatural at the same
time, the text plays with the question of nature. Some of the least comprehensible
phrases are taken from the serious journal, La Nature, in an act of
appropriation of words that parallels Ernst's appropriation of images into
his visual collages. Breton and Eluard, by de-contextualizing the phrases
they incorporate into L'lmmaculee Conception, show just how unnatural nature
can seem, just as Ernst did in La Femme 100 tetes. The reference to "la
podurelle du col de fenetre," for example, makes sense once we learn that it
is lifted directly from the August 1893 issue of La Nature, which announces
the discovery of a new kind of podurelle, a tiny orange insect, near the "col
de Fenetre" which is in the "massif du Grand Saint-Bernard" (Bonnet,
"Notice" in "CEuvres" 1645).
Breton and Eluard also refer indirectly to the Virgin's unnatural nature
by referring to a woman who is described as anarchistic because she bears
children. In a surrealist perspective, it is unnatural for women to bear
children. This is because, ostensibly, the Surrealists claimed to be in favor
of freeing women from their reproductive function. In accordance with her
presentation in this text as an emblem of resistance to Church hierarchy,
the Virgin is unnatural, if not anarchistic, because, according to Church
doctrine, she managed to bear a child while retaining her virginity.
The Virgin Mary's body may have served as a "vessel" for Jesus Christ,
but he was not conceived naturally. In this way, Mary "reproduced" the
way poets do, who also conceive and give birth to texts immaculately in a
similarly "unnatural" way. This constitutes the fourth thematic reference
to her. Finally, Mary may also be identified with the text itself. Her body
works like a signifier, transporting signified-meaning. But because the signifieds
she carries are mystical and polyvalent, her body is a particularly apt
metaphor for the signifiers in an automatic text, in which the referents are
unclear, and which tend to playa larger role in producing meaning, in
establishing new fields of reference. Like the mentally ill whom they are
emulating in the "Possessions," Breton and Eluard seek to find meaning and
poetry through language as an active source, a medium, whose role goes
beyond that of mere mediator of meaning. The words themselves are like
bodies which have life of their own, just as the Virgin Mary, through her
bodily"appearances," seems to have a life of her own.
For Breton and Eluard, the automatic text mediates between their conBRETON
scious selves and their more sacred unconscious beings. The Virgin as an
Automatic Woman acts as a conductor to their work by revealing repressed
aspects of themselves on paper, and she acts as a metaphor for that work.
As a deity-figure, she helps them discover the feminine-sibyl in themselves;
and as an unpredictable liminal body outside of themselves-an icon for
ecriture-she emblematizes the automatic text, the result of their inspiration.
Under the "heading" of the Immaculate Conception, Breton and
Eluard experiment with the ways in which language itself can generate
poetry. The text demonstrates how poetic language, something like an
Automatic Woman, is capable of doing more than either mirroring the
writer's consciousness or mediating between himself and the world. Poetic
language is capable of generating its own spark and momentum, particularly
in the automatic writing process, like an Automatic Woman become
In Breton's 1938 photomontage, "Autoportrait" (also entitled Ecriture
auiomaiiquei, he shows himself facing the viewer: through the lens of his
microscope, wild horses escape under a full moon. With his lens he consciously
pursues the marvelous, while all along it lies behind him-a visual
metaphor for "within" him-repressed behind the prison-wall of his unconscious,
and disguised as a beautiful woman. The woman is looking at
him, not at the camera. She is accessible only to him and waits to be let out,
via the automatic writing process.i
For Breton, and the Surrealists in general, the marvelous was gendered
feminine, like the Virgin Mary. The Virgin as the Immaculate Conception
was most effective for them as a muse when they internalized her, like the
woman in the"Autoportrait," and also like the Virgin Mary and all her
characteristics. She was whom they sought when they held the pen over
the page in anticipation of the writing which would spill out and reveal
their own secret identities to them. She inspired the text and embodied it,
because as long as the "Automatic Woman" was only the ephemeral marvelous-
like the Virgin Mary-she could endlessly and immaculately reproduce
sparks within the male poets who turned to her for that ineffable
feeling of creativity made manifest in their own works.
The seriousness with which patriarchal religion regards her makes the
Virgin an easy target for the Surrealists's sense of humor. But her appearing
body serves as a metaphor for their own writing bodies-used by them
as mediums in their search to unveil the secrets of their own desires-and
acts as an appropriate metaphor for the automatic writing project, as an
icon for the surprising, modern, automatic text itself.
IStatues of the Virgin replaced statues of Isis (and Horus) at Chartres, Le Puy en Velay,
Saint Germain des Pres; see: Marina Warner, Alone ofAll Her Sex, 1976; R.E. Witt, Isis in the
Graeco-Roman World, 1971; [urgis Baltrusaitis, La Quete d'lsi«, 1967.
2Henry Adams quotes Gaston Paris on Gaultier de Coincy, the thirteenth-century poet
who put the Miracles de la Vierge into verse: "a nun who has quitted her convent to lead a
life of sin, returns after long years, and finds that the Holy Virgin, to whom, in spite of all,
she has never ceased to offer every day her prayer, has, during all this time, filled her place
as sacrisiine, so that no one has perceived her absence" (244).
3Three of her most celebrated appearances have taken place in Paris to Catherine Laboure
in 1830, at Lourdes to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, and at Fatima, Portugal to three
children in 1917. But she reportedly continues to make appearances to this day.
4The date when it was determined that the Virgin kept her original body (1950) indicates
to what extent interest in the Virgin Mary is a twentieth-century concern; Mary is said to
have gone to heaven in her sleep, without dying, in a doctrine called the "Dormition,"
according to which "she is translated to heaven" ("Alone" 84).
SFor more on the importance of the incipit in L'lmmaculee Conception see Jacqueline
Chenieux-Cendron, "Toward a New Definition of Automatism: L'lmmacuiee Conception."
Dada/Surrealism 17 (1988): 74-90.
7Both of these photographs are reproduced in the 1991 Corti edition of L'lmmaculi»
Conception. For more on Dali's influence on L'Immaculee Conception see Chenieux-Cendron.
8There is an earlier photograph entitled L'Ecriture auiomatique, which appeared in the
Revolution surrealisie (1927). It shows a woman dressed as a school-girl, a femme-enfant,
holding a pen poised and ready for the automatic flow of words. She looks away both from
the page and the camera, and thus represents Woman as Medium, emphasizing Woman's
capacity for clairvoyance, but also her lack of mental engagement in the process. She is
another example of a surrealist Woman-symbol, devoid of subjectivity. She functions as an
early visual metaphor for the automatic text as medium between the male poet's conscious
and unconscious thoughts.
Works Cited
Adams, Henry. Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres. New York: Viking Penguin, 1986.
Baltrusaitis, ]urgis. La Quete d'lsis. Paris: Olivier Pernin Editeur, 1967.
Bonnet, Marguerite. "Notice: L'Immaculee Conception: 1930." LEuvres completes. T.1. By Andre
Breton. Paris: Callimard-Pletade, 1988. 1629-52.
Breton, Andre. L'Amour fou. Paris: Gallimard-Folio, 1937.
___ . Arcane 17. Paris: Pauvert, 1971.
___ . auvres completes. T.1. Eds. Marguerite Bonnet and Etienne-Alain Hubert. Paris:
Cailimard-Pletade. 1988.
___ . Le Surrealisme et la peiniure. Nouvelle edition revue et corrigee. Paris: Gallimard,
___ , and Paul Eluard. L'Immaculee Conception. Paris: Corti, 1991.
Chenieux-Cendron. Jacqueline. "Towards a New Definition of Automatism: L'Immaculee
Conception." Trans. Esther Allen. Dada/Surrealism 17 (1988): 74-90.
Ernst, Max. The Hundred Headless Woman. Trans. Dorothea Tanning. New York: George
Braziller, 1981.
Reverdy, Pierre. "Llmage." Nord-Sud13 (mars 1918). In Nord-Sud, Self-Defence et autres ecriis
sur l'art et la poesie (1917-1926). Paris: Flammarion, 1975. 73-75.
Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.
Witt, R.E. Isis in the Graeco-Roman World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1971.
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